Wednesday, June 26, 2002 | 11:12 a.m.
Hundreds of miles and a world of cultural differences separate glitzy Las Vegas from the small-town lakeside community of Neenah, Wis., where Tom Wiesner grew up.
But Wiesner, a longtime Republican political leader and prominent local businessman, managed to make a taste of that dairyland region a part of the burgeoning desert community he adopted as his hometown 39 years ago.
You can see Wiesner's Wisconsin in everything from the bratwurst and walleye he served in his Big Dog's Hospitality Group restaurants to the bright red "W" of the University of Wisconsin he had put on the white helmets of the Las Vegas Pop Warner football teams he sponsored.
Wiesner, most recently a university regent and more than 30 years ago a Clark County commissioner, died Tuesday afternoon after a lengthy battle with leukemia at a hospital in Seattle. He was 63.
Local services are pending. A private service was held in Seattle on Tuesday.
The spirit of Middle America that Wiesner etched on Las Vegas with his dedication to athletics and keen business sense will endure -- from the UNLV-Wisconsin football games he championed to the hand-crafted beers brewed in his pubs.
Whether Nevadans years from now recall Wiesner's political clout, legendary influence on Las Vegas sports or his hulking physical presence, many will agree Wiesner was every bit "The Big Dog" he affectionately was nicknamed.
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn sent a letter to Wiesner's wife, Lynn, to express condolences.
"Tom was a true Nevadan," Guinn said. "From his hard work as a successful businessman and chair of the Clark County Commission, to the time and money he donated to educational and charity groups throughout Southern Nevada, he will be remembered for years to come."
Regent Chairwoman Thalia Dondero, who also served with Wiesner as a Clark County commissioner, called Wiesner a "compassionate, deeply committed board member ... a jewel in our community."
"His biggest legacy is his big dog warm heart," fellow Regent Mark Alden said. "Maybe that's where the nickname came from."
Wiesner, one of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' top academic and athletic boosters, helped in the 1980s to establish football games between UNLV and his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. The Badger / Rebel games have drawn huge crowds locally, including a record 40,091 fans in 1992.
Wiesner was elected to a six-year term on the Board of Regents in 1996 and was selected vice chairman by his peers in 1997. He stepped down in February because of his ailment.
As a board member Wiesner early on addressed the inequity in funding athletics between UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno, and worked on gender equity issues. He pushed for football coach John Robinson to get his dual position as coach and athletic director.
"Everybody who came into contact with Tom liked him and admired him," Robinson said. The coach recalled that two days after Wiesner found out about the disease he still made the trip to the UNLV-Air Force Academy game in Colorado Springs, Colo. in November.
"He was still full of energy and walking the sidelines and yelling at the officials. He was able to disguise just how bad the disease was for him," Robinson said.
His involvement made Wiesner one of the pillars of the UNLV athletic program, said Dominic Clark, UNLV sports information director in the late 1970s, the programs's formative years.
Former UNLV head football coach Jeff Horton, now an assistant at Wisconsin, said Wiesner, "always tried to create an atmosphere at UNLV like he experienced in the Big Ten at Wisconsin. It seemed like he knew everybody. You'd go on a recruiting trip to Miami or New York or Texas and you would always bump into somebody who knew him."
That widespread network of friends and acquaintances spread beyond the athletic arena. "When I want to the Conference of Mayors in Madison, Wis., over Father's Day, everybody came up to me and asked how Tom was doing and offered their best wishes for his recovery," Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said.
A dozen years ago Wiesner founded the Big Dog's Hospitality Group, that today operates seven Wisconsin-themed restaurant-bar-casinos, including the Draft House Barn & Casino, the now-closed Holy Cow! casino, Big Dog's Bar & Grill, Two Dogs Casino and Little Dog's Tavern.
In 1977 Wiesner began his gaming career when the state Gaming Commission approved him as landlord of the Marina. That property later was sold to billionaire financier Kirk Kerkorian and became part of the MGM megaresort.
In December 1990 Wiesner won Nevada Gaming Control Board approval for a non-restricted gambling license to operate the Draft House.
Wiesner augmented his fortune with the construction of the Sunrise Golf Course and investments in car rental operations, horses, securities and oil and gas exploration and construction of office buildings and apartments.
Wiesner was happy to share his good fortune with the community. Among the many charities to which he donated his time and money were the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clark County, United Way, American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, UNLV, St. Rose de Lima Hospital and Easter Seals of Clark County.
A civic leader Wiesner was a member of the Nevada Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, among many others. He was a past director of the Las Vegas Country Club.
Wiesner was elected Republican National Committeeman for the state in 1986. But former Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat, said Wiesner's friendship transcended party lines.
"Tom was a reasonable man, and even though we differed, our discussions were never heated," Miller said. "It's hard to believe he won't be there for the UNLV-Wisconsin game (in September). And I don't think I'll ever go to another UNLV basketball game without thinking of him."
Born Feb. 28, 1939, in Wausau, Wis., Wiesner moved with his family, which included six brothers, to Neenah on the banks of Lake Winnebago in 1944. He graduated from Neenah High School in 1957.
At the University of Wisconsin, Wiesner was the all-university heavyweight boxing champion in 1958 and was named captain and most valuable player during the 1960-61 football season.
As a fullback and linebacker, Wiesner helped lead the Badgers to the 1959 Big 10 title and the 1960 Rose Bowl, where the team lost to Washington. Wiesner received a bachelor of science degree, and was drafted by the National Football League's Baltimore Colts in 1961. He was on four pro teams in the United States and Canada in two years but never played a regular season game.
Giving up on a pro gridiron career in 1963, Wiesner moved to Las Vegas and started Holmes Tire West, which he sold in 1971. Wiesner co-founded Southwest Securities Development the next year and long worked as a managing partner. He also founded Wiesner Investment Co., which started the Las Vegas Athletic Club and built the Marina hotel-casino in the mid-1970s.
Wiesner was elected to the Clark County Commission in 1970, upsetting two-term Democrat incumbent Darwin Lamb. Wiesner, then 31, was at the time the youngest person ever elected to the commission. He served two terms, during which he was chairman twice.
As a commissioner Wiesner also was a member of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and was chairman on the Airport Authority. He also was chairman of the Hospital Board and Sanitation District and a member of the Liquor and Gaming Commission.
In 1978 Wiesner was defeated in the Republican primary by political upstart Carl Milzner, who lost to the late Democrat Jack Petitti for the Clark County Commission E seat.
Wiesner's work in local government included stints on the Nevada Development Authority, the Metro Police Commission and the Regional Streets and Highways Board and presidency of the Las Vegas Valley Water District Board. He also was a member of the Clark County Planning Commission.
Wiesner co-founded the UNLV Quarterback Club and later founded the UNLV Football Foundation, which funds scholarships.
Wiesner married the former Lynn Geary in 1965. They had two children, daughter Kari Lynn and son Kurt Thomas Wiesner, who survive him. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Sun reporters Jennifer Knight, Steve Guiremand, Ron Kantowski and Erin Neff contributed to this report.